Monday, August 25, 2014

Code Blue! Ways to keep a medical story off life support

by Jennifer Lamont Leo

The main character of my work-in-progress works as a nurse . . . in modern, up-to-date hospital . . . in 1944. Clearly I've set myself up for a major research challenge! How can I assure that my scenes and characters are realistic and accurate? That no reader who was a nurse (or a daughter or granddaughter of a nurse) in the 1940s will throw my book across the room in frustration with its research gaffes?

First, I have to consider the hospital environment in general, where I've never worked or (thankfully) spent significant time as a patient. What goes on there, when, and why? Who are the major and minor players? Do hospitals bear even a passing resemblance to the way they're portrayed on TV?

Second, I must take that hospital environment and shift it back seventy years. What technology and procedures were available then? How was the nursing profession different then than it is now? What would a typical day in the life of a nurse in a busy hospital back in 1944 look like? And so on.

Here, then, are some research techniques I've been exploring so far. 

1) To get a bead on the nursing profession in general, I've talked with nurses and spent time perusing nursing blogs and websites. That's a good start, of course, but obviously many aspects of the nursing life are very different nowadays than they were back in 1944. Starched white uniforms and stiff little caps, anyone?

2) I've also made liberal use of a book called Code Blue: A writer's guide to hospitals, including the ER, OR, and ICE by Drs. Keith Wilson and David Page. In the introduction, Dr. Michael Palmer writes, ""Nothing is more unsatisfying for me than to be yanked from the world in which I have chosen to immerse myself by a 'fact' I know is simply not so. The head-injured victim is rushed to the emergency ward and given a shot of painkiller. Next book, please! No ER doc in his right mind would ever administer a drug that might alter the consciousness of such a patient. If the author...was going to deal with something as arcane to most writers as emergency medicine, why couldn't she have asked a doc to check her accuracy?" Touche. (Note: Published in 2000, my copy of Code Blue needs to be updated to keep pace with current technology and procedures. Nonetheless, since I write historical fiction and therefore don't need to portray the very latest cutting-edge techniques and equipment, it's been a great resource for identifying the players, principles, and procedures of a typical hospital.)

3) I got my mitts on an old nursing-school textbook from 1956. Although written twelve years later than my story's setting, many of the basic procedures and philosophy it describes would still be accurate. To my delight, I also found that many articles from the archives of The American Journal of Nursing (which has been around since 1900) can be found online.

5) I researched the history of hospitals--and especially the history of the real-life hospital that my fictional facility is based on--with a keen eye toward what life was like for the nurses.

4) I read Cherry Ames: Student Nurse published in 1943. Don't laugh! Cherry may have been too angelic for words, but the story presents a glimpse (if idealized) of hospital life through the eyes of a nurse in the correct historical time period.

So how about it, readers? What research gems am I missing? What stones of 1944 nursing life have I left unturned? Let me know in the comments.

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